As a way to combine my interests in television and books, here are my reviews of three books about television.
Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV (Brian Stelter, Grand Central Publishing)
Top of the Morning is an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the battle for dominance between the Today show and Good Morning America. Other morning shows including CBS This Morning and MSNBC’s Morning Joe are mentioned, but the Today/GMA rivalry gets most of the coverage.
I got sucked into the drama but could have done without all the silly metaphors (“the only couch in America that could itself get a mid-six-figure book deal”; “The gap was now NASCAR-speedway-size, not football-stadium-size.”)
While the book presents a comprehensive history dating back to the launch of Today in 1952, the focus is on “Operation Bambi”: the bungled outster of Ann Curry from the Today anchor chair. I couldn’t stand watching Curry’s uncomfortable banter and numerous blunders, but she was the sacrificial lamb (Lamb Curry? Sorry, I couldn’t resist) for Today’s falling ratings…which weren’t all her fault. Stelter’s take is that Matt Lauer may have wanted her out, but he didn’t push her out. The real masterminds were NBC producers and executives. Lauer took the heat because he’s the public figure.
The book also delves into Robin Roberts’ very public battle with myelodysplastic syndromes, a result of her treatment for breast cancer years earlier. The way she juggled her professional duties, helping GMA beatToday’s legendary 16-year ratings streak, with her personal trials was amazing. I guess next I’m going to have to read Everybody’s Got Something, Roberts’ memoir (also from Grand Central Publishing.)
Good Talk, Dad: The BIRDS and the BEES…and other CONVERSATIONS we FORGOT to have (Bill Geist and Willie Geist, Grand Central Publishing)
Speaking of morning television…this book was written by Bill Geist fromCBS Sunday Morning and his son Willie Geist who appears on Today andMorning Joe. It’s not really a book about TV, it’s about the relationship between a father and son who happen to work in TV. They also happen to have lived in my hometown of Ridgewood, NJ, and the book includes many amusing local references.
The day it was released I attended their signing at Bookends, our local independent bookstore that somehow attracts everyone from Clintons to Kardashians to its ugly, wood-paneled basement for author appearances. Their family and many former neighbors were in attendance, and I was struck by what nice, genuine people the Geists really seem to be. They come off that way in the book: very homespun yet quirky, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Bill’s work.
The anecdotes in the book are downright hilarious. It’s also poignant, delving into previously taboo subjects like Bill’s service in Vietnam and his struggles with Parkinson’s. It’s a fun read and a perfect Father’s Day gift.
The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country (Gabriel Sherman, Random House)
That’s a really long subtitle…and it’s a really interesting book about a really fascinating character. Ailes has been a political kingmaker, a media mogul, and even a Broadway producer. I might doubt the veracity of some of the stories if I didn’t know how spot-on chapter 9, “America’s Talking,” was. I was working at NBC Cable at the time and witnessed the Ailes cult of personality first hand. Loyalty was prized above all, as evidenced by the legions of staff members who followed him to Fox News.
The one accomplishment of this era that the book neglects to cover is the “Talk Search”: Ailes had the idea of conducting a nation-wide contest to find a host of one of the new America’s Talking shows. It was a brilliant PR stunt, and a reality competition show ahead of its time (the competition itself was not televised, but it should have been.) After the demise of America’s Talking the winner, Bill McCuddy, was an entertainment reporter at Fox News from 1996–2007 and is currently residing in the “where are they now?” file.
Ailes has proven that if you say something often enough, no matter how absurd it is, people will believe it. He’s used “Fair and Balanced” as a tagline for the most unfair and unbalanced news network on the air, helping it become #1 in ratings and profits. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny his influence on American politics and media.